Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1833-4)


From the Introduction to the Oxford edition (2008):

The fundamental Carlylean doctrines are all articulated, or at least, adumbrated here: the horrors of Utilitarianism; the religious base of society; the pattern of conversion–from everlasting No, through the Center of indifference to the Everlasting Yea–which showed that, in the the words of Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology’; the importance of vocation; the superiority of renunciation to the pursuit of happiness; the moral imperatives of work, duty, and reverence; the need for heroes; and the social vision that saw Britain divided into the two nations of rich and poor.

Anne Mellor presents Sartor  as a ‘self-consuming artifact’ that ‘does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves.’ Sartor Resartus is a fictional work ‘designed to consume itself by revealing the limitations both of its own symbolic language and of language as such. It is intended not as a monument of truth but as a goad to action.’ (English Romantic Irony (1978)

Much depends on whether we share the doubts of the Editor or whether we read those doubts as the result of his miscomprehension of Teufelsdöckh’s system. That system is a paired down version of German Idealism, meant to counterpoint English utilitarianism. Teufelsdröckh distinguishes in Hegelian mode between Understanding (phenomenal, sensory experience) and Reason (noumenal, synthetic thought), which is able to somehow pierce through the mere facts of everyday an understand the Everlasting:

To the eye of vulgar logic,” syas he,” what is man? An omnivorous Biped that wears breeches. To the eye of Pure Reason what is he? A Soul, a Spirit, and a divine Apparition. Round his mysterious Me, there lies, under all those wool-rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven; whereby he is revealed to his like, and dwells with them in Union and Division; and sees and fashions for himself a universe, with azure Starry Spaces, and long Thousands of Years. Deep-hidden is he under that strange Garment; amid Sounds and Colour and Forms, as it were, swathed in, and inextricably overshrouded: yet it is sky-woven, and worthy of God. (51)

Throughout, Carlyle is anxious about the soul converging with its digestive counterpart, the stomach. “if man’s soul is indeed…a kind of Stomach, what else is the true meaning of Spiritual Union but an Eating Together? Thus we, instead of Friends, are Dinner-guests; and here as elsewhere have cast away chimeras” (91). So this begins to mark  fine line between the daily requirements of the omnivorous biped and the insatiable consumption (and production) that conditions Industrial Capitlaism:

To me the universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-Engine, rolling on, in its dead insignificance, to grind me limb from limb. (127)

Here the utilitarian outlook converges with nihilism in the section devoted to the Everlasting No. From here Teufelsdröckh undergoes his “Baphometic Fire-baptism”  which leads to him becoming a Man. The center of Indifference, strangely, takes up the subject of nascent democracy “in its birth pangs” and “Great Men.” This can be read as moment of historical transition condensed into psychological transformation. The Everlasting Yea is something very much like a full sublimation, wherein “contradiction is solved,” yet the process of completion is strictly negative: “the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not by increasing you Numerator, as by lessening you Denominator” (145). Further, this subtraction seems centered on the subject: “a black spot in our sunshine: the Shadow of Ourselves.” This the is a giving account of one’s investment (and position) in a world that is experiential from the start.

This will all conclude in the tour de force “Natural Supernaturalism” chapter that posits God’s in(ter)vention of Time and Space as natural clothing to all noumenal existence. Basically acknowledges limits as the very things that give us a capacity to experience the world at all (time, space, etc.)…interesting bridge to talking about Hegel and, later, Gadamer.

There is also a parallel between the editorial attempts to gather together Teufel’s papers and any attempt to reconstruct history:

History in authentic fragments lay mingled with Fabulous chimeras, wehre also was reality; and the whole not as dead stuff, but as living pabulum, tolerably nutritive for a mind as yet so poetic. (79)

Also refers to orphan as a loan that needs to be made good on (read as critique of hoe Victorian novels would end up treating the orphan as a means to an end of narrative denouement….


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